Forging a Hero’s Life

A friend of mine recently came to live with me for a couple of weeks until her lease begins in September.  She’s been essentially homeless for nearly a month, is neck-deep in debt from recently getting her master’s degree, and now she can’t find a job.  A New York native, she’s a long way from home and family here in Chicago, and to top it all off, she and her boyfriend are parting ways–he’s leaving for, of all places, New York.

This morning she received notice that she owes the great city of Chicago $100 for running a red light in a friend’s car.  Where does it end?  But she said something to me this morning about how a heroine’s, or hero’s, journey always begins with hardship.  They start in poverty or loneliness or sadness.  Only eventually do they end up living “happily ever after” (a blog post in itself–what does that even mean, and does it really exist?).  But right now, we’re in the beginnings of our journey as the hero/heroine of our own story.

So often when growing up, or even now that I’m in the middle of my job search, I’ve been told that I have a bright future ahead, that I will accomplish something great with my life.  A job interviewer once even told me that he didn’t have a place for me in his company, but that I’ll “be a rock star” someday.  Hear it enough, and you actually start to believe it.  But after a while, if you let them, those words become hollow and meaningless.  I grow impatient with getting the show on the road.  I want to accomplish this great thing, whatever that is, NOW.  I want to make a difference already!

But that’s not what the hero’s journey is.  It’s five parts agony and one huge part redemption.  It paying your dues, it’s patience, it’s constant self-improvement and hard work.  When I get impatient and perfectionistic, I could do well to remember this.

When I talk to established folks about their journeys to where they are now, it is nearly always a winding journey: like my mother who got her degree in journalism and advertising and became an FBI agent; my neighbor who was a scientist before founding a charter school in inner city Chicago; Blake Mycoskie, who stumbled into the shoe business after a trip to Argentina and founded TOMS.  But it’s so hard when you’re in the middle of it all, and don’t know where you’ll end up.  If only I could have a glimpse of what I would be doing in the future.  No matter what it is, I just want to know I’ll be okay someday.  That would make this whole journey much easier, but it would also make it so much less predictable–leaving less room for excitement, and if I’m being optimistic, less room for the fun that comes along with unpredictability.

If I’m going to be the heroine of my own story, I need to be able to accept the hardship that goes into forging a hero.  And someday I’ll be able to look back and marvel at that season of my life that I was an unemployed blogger, or an underpaid barista, or the opposite of a rock star.

P.S.  For those that were wondering what I used as my six-word memoir, here it is:

Trying, not whining; doing, not sitting.

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Lessons from Unwanted Advice

A few months ago I was at a party with some extended family.  I had gotten up at 3 AM to work an eight hour shift, so by the time I got to their house at 1 PM, I was already burned out and exhausted.  Folks were asking me the uncomfortable question, “What are you doing these days?”  And I responded that I was working at a coffee shop, maybe looking into going back to grad school, looking for a better job, blah blah blah.

That was when a step-cousin stepped in and started giving me advice about how to find a job.  I get this a lot from people, and it’s totally fine if they know what they’re talking about.  I try to learn from every experienced person I meet.  But this cousin was still in undergrad, still in that idealistic mindset that was so reminiscent of where I was a few years back.  She wasn’t majoring in the same thing I had, and she wasn’t looking for jobs yet.  In fact, she wasn’t even paying for her own education–she got a free ride because her mother worked for the school.

“Well my college has a career center!  You should go there!”

I think you’re looking in the wrong places!”

“I don’t think I’ll ever get sick of what I do!  I mean, how could you ever get sick of teaching?”

For real.

I nodded and smiled, and let her say what she wanted to say.  I was too tired to argue.  I just wanted to pat her on her naive little head, tell her, “Aw, it’s so cute that you think that’s how the world works.”

But here’s the thing.  I was her a few years ago.

I was one of those who had a job lined up by graduation.  I went on Craigslist, found a job working for a sculptor in the town where I wanted to live.  I interviewed the week before graduation, and everything neatly and unrealistically fell into place.  A week after graduation, I had my dream job in a cool city, and it had been so easy.  All these people who claimed they couldn’t find a job?  Well clearly they were just lazy.  Clearly in my experience, the jobs were out there for the taking–you just had to get out there and take!

It took less than seven weeks for that facade to come tumbling down.  The people who had hired me even told me that to a certain extent, it was pure luck that I got that job.  I had responded quickly enough to be one of the first ten people.  The job was filled from the first ten or twenty resumes and the other hundreds, no matter how qualified they may have been, went unread and were thrown out.

Suddenly I was in the shoes of those who I assumed were lazy and unqualified.  It was a bitter pill to swallow.  Just because I’m jobless or underemployed does not mean I am any less qualified, inventive, diligent, intelligent, or conscientious than the next person.  So much of getting a job these days boils down to qualifications and luck, and when everyone is qualified, all that’s left is luck.

But I learned three important lessons here:

  1. The unemployed are not to be judged.  Your experience is not everyone’s experience.  And this can be attributed to pretty much everything in life.  Keep an open mind.  Be compassionate.
  2. There is nothing wrong with being the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed undergraduate student.  Be excited for the future.  Have big dreams.  There are already so many cynical people out there.  Be happy even when the cynics (including the cynics you carry around inside) get down on you for it–I definitely need more work in this arena.
  3. When dealing with overly-talkative, intrusive family, take a deep breath, nod, and smile.  Then politely excuse yourself.

What lessons have you learned thanks to your unique experience?

I Am Not A Boomerang

I never expected to live in my hometown post-graduation.  I grew up in a small town outside of Chicago and lived in the same little white house for about 17 years.  When I was little I had dreams of someday moving to Seattle or London or Portland because I really liked rain and books and coffee–logical connection, right?  I wanted mountains instead of corn.  I lived in Oregon for three months, which just cemented my desire to go.  So many cool places…why would I want to stay in Mount Prospect, Illinois?

Memory Lane

I can literally take a stroll down memory lane.

By the time college graduation rolled around, I decided it was as good a time as any to make a big move.  I moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and needless to say, it didn’t go well.  And so, I did the unthinkable–I moved back home.  Not because it was the easy thing to do.  Not because I wanted to.  I really had no choice.  I was recently laid off, broke, and unable to find a job.  I am fortunate that my mom and step-dad welcomed me home with open arms, and now I find myself back in the town where I grew up.  Back in the same house, even.

I always resented being a part of something called “The Boomerang Generation”–the idea being that people from my generation go off to college, and then instead of making their own way in the world, come back and live at home again.  I’ve always sensed the connotation in that phrase, however, that it’s an unwanted return and/or that the kid is lazy.  A friend of my mom’s recently commented in response to one of my moves, “She’s considered a ‘Boomerang Kid’ – you throw her out and she comes back!”  I had sworn I would never do that.  I never wanted to be that–I wanted independence.  I wanted adventure.  I wanted my own story.  And the comment, though intended to be playful, cut me like a serrated edge.

Living in my hometown is not the Seattle dream I once had, but it has it’s plusses.  There’s a certain comfort being back in the same neighborhood, seeing the same familiar neighborly faces.  At the time of this writing, I have just biked the same route I used to take to elementary school, and I am at the same coffee shop I used to come to in high school.

It’s a complicated relationship–my hometown and me.  It’s a constant reminder of who I used to be and the dreams I used to have.  Not to say I don’t still have those dreams–someday I know I’ll make it to those places–but it’s a bit more intricate now.

So do me a favor.  Please don’t call me a boomerang.  I’m a human being who tried and failed and am picking up the pieces so that I can make my second try better.

And I’m incredibly fortunate to have a home to return to.  I will always be appreciative of that.

An Introduction: Life Plan B…or C…or D

Well the weather is beginning to turn.  I’m sitting on my balcony wrapped in a nubby blanket, and the leaves on the tree near me are yellowing.  I really enjoy autumn, but I’m not sure I’m ready for it to be here quite yet.  Autumn is a reminder that time moves on.  Leaves fall, the sun is around less and less, and before we know it, summer will be buried under the ice and snow that we adore so much here in Chicago.  Lately it’s been reminding me, at the risk of sounding a bit dramatic, that time is speeding up, and I need to figure out who I am before I run out of it.

I graduated from college with an English degree a little over a year ago.  Post-graduation, I moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee where I had a job working for an internationally-known sculptor.  For a hectic seven weeks, I wrote press releases, newsletters, and grant requests, edited photos and filmed installations, and traveled across the country taking down exhibitions and meeting with potential buyers and heads of museums.  Seven weeks in, I got laid off.  I didn’t know anyone in the area except my roommate, a college friend of mine who was working as a waitress at the local dive bar.  I spent months unemployed because I found that in Chatt, if you aren’t related to someone, you’re an outsider.  And as a result, no one wanted to hire me.  I was working as an intern for a publishing company, but it was unpaid.  By October, I decided I needed to go home to Chicago.  On Halloween I packed up all of my stuff, drove 12 hours, and moved back in with my parents.

I remember in high school the media started calling people my age the “boomerang generation” because of the way they went off to college and then, after graduation, moved back in with the ‘rents.  I promised myself that I would be independent, make my own way in the world, and not rely on my parents for everything…and yet here I was, post-college, living in my parent’s guest room.

I spent a long time looking for jobs, finally landing a temp job doing data entry for a financial firm.  That ended after a couple of months and I was back on the job search.  One of my mom’s friends found me the job I have now doing data entry for a payroll company.  I’ve been at this job for 7 months now.

My story is like so many other recent graduates out there these days.  Recently, a friend told me she just feels lost.  Like she doesn’t know who she is anymore since she graduated from college.  That is how I have described myself quite frequently since donning my mortarboard.  May 2009 was so beautiful and full of hope.  I was so excited to “begin” my life.  I am baffled by how I got to where I am today.

I’m blogging about this because I feel like it is a pretty common sentiment among my peers and those going through transition during this awful economic time.  My story is one of thousands out there–maybe even tens of thousands…or more.  I’m looking to answer these questions:

What is my identity now that I’m not a student anymore? I spent 17 years of my life in the education system.  And I was good at it!  Now I have to develop a completely new skill set, new goals, new outlook on life.  How do I even begin going about that?

Who am I when I’m unemployed? Or, more applicable to my situation, who am I when I’m unhappy in my job? Our society places so much of our identity on our occupations.  As a result, it has begun to color my outlook on meeting new people or seeing old friends because I know the inevitable question, “What do you do?” or “What are you doing these days?” is going to come up.  I have difficulty finding the energy for it.

What can I do to make my life more fulfilling? I assumed (naively) that post-graduation I would find a job that had some aspect I enjoyed.  I had this grand image of living in an exotic place, making interesting, creative friends, having stimulating conversations.  It’s not that my life doesn’t have its happy moments, but most of the time, I feel as if I’m just marking time until I become that person I envisioned.  A blog entry I read recently by Michael Hyatt stated that you should be moving towards something, not away from something else.  Right now I am stagnant.  What can I be moving toward?

I want to hear from all of you out there in similar situations as well.  How are you coping?  What are you doing to make your lives more interesting?  What kind of person to you envision yourself being, and how are you doing making that a reality?